"The Report Card-inal": Stanford 28, Cal 34

Grades are out and the Cardinal has earned itself a "time-out", some time to think about how it wants to finish the 2009 season. There is still a clear and present opportunity to win back the positive vibe by manhandling the Irish, a team that has beaten Stanford in the past seven consecutive seasons! Jim Harbaugh does not look in the rearview mirror, so expect the Cardinal to rebound and POUND!

"The Report Card-inal": Stanford 28, California 34

Editor's Note: The following commentary offers the author's personal views of the on-field performances of some of Stanford University's exceptional student-athletes. In no way should constructively-intended criticism be deemed as a lack of respect or admiration for our players' obvious desire, dedication, sacrifice and commitment. The views expressed below do not reflect necessarily those of Bootleg management, Major Upset Productions, the Scout Network, Fox Sports, News Corp or Coach Harbaugh.     

It was a Big Game disappointment for Stanford. What looked so great in the first quarter turned into nothing but a thrilling, but bitter loss in a very exciting game. For all the blame that is about to be spread, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that Stanford still had a shot to win with 75 seconds left to go. It was a great game, with the wrong ending. Brace yourselves. The grading may appear tough, but as they say: "When the grading gets tough...the tough (the "TWU" offensive line in this instance) get grading!" To the marks we go:



Toby Gerhart rushes for 136 yards and a school-record-tying four touchdowns and the run game only gets a "B-"? You could certainly make the argument to boost this number up to at least a B. (If he bowls over for the game-winning TD, this of course goes to at least an A-) "Touchdown Toby" certainly provided plenty of offensive sparks for Stanford. Tyler Gaffney's 21-yard sweep to set up a touchdown was marvelous and hopefully an indication of future runs to come. Redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck once again used his legs very effectively, showing an uncanny sense for the position of the sticks. But for all the positives, the Stanford run game was largely missing-in-action during the middle two quarters of the game. After giving up the sensational, crowd-thrilling 61-yard touchdown to Gerhart on the first drive, and another touchdown run after the blocked punt, Cal did an admirable job of stuffing the middle. The inside hand-off that has been a "bread & butter" play for Stanford the last three games was stifled. Stanford did not start running again until late in the third quarter when they finally started running off tackle and to the outside. A "healthy" dose of elusive freshman Stepfan Taylor may have been able to open things up a bit more. Cal's 3-4 defense, with linebackers charging the gaps, did not allow for much open space for the inside running game. With Stanford's offense not on the field very much, the team could never make the adjustments and get in sync.



Stanford fans have been so spoiled. Andrew Luck has been amazing in his inaugural season at the helm. Yet, Saturday night we were all reminded he is a 19-year-old redshirt freshman who is just scratching the surface of his talent. Unfortunately, he waited for the Big Game to suffer his least productive game. It is not to blame him, to ruin is confidence, or to get on him, it is just a plain fact with which I am sure he agrees. He did not play well. His stat line was 10-30, 157 yards, no touchdowns and the fateful interception. 4 of 12 for 27 yards in the first half. Un-Luck-y. Uncharacteristically, #12 dropped three shotgun snaps from center. He overthrew his targets with regularity. He also had little help. The great Cardinal offensive line struggled like they had not done this season. Luck saw much more pressure than normal. When he would deliver the pass, the receivers reverted back to the Arizona game with a couple of big, drive-killing drops. The first-half drop by Chris Owusu was one of several game-changers. The offense was just out of sync from the moment they got up 14-0. It was not all Luck's fault. In a big football game it is the quarterback that a team looks to for guidance, and on this one night, Luck did not have the answers.



Shane Vereen ran a personal-best 42 times for 193 yards. That alone is "enough said" on this grade. The Stanford defense made some big plays early, and they made two stops late. But during the middle of the contest they just could not get off the field. It was Cal running an inside trap game that looked very much like a Stanford offense. Vereen just followed his big blockers right up the gut. It was not always long gains that hurt the Card - in fact there were not many "big" runs. But it was always four or five chain-moving yards at a time. It seemed like every set of downs would end up third-and-one for Cal. The defense had no hope of stopping the short yardage plays. Stanford surrendered 31 first downs in this game!  For the most part, the Cal offensive line dominated the defensive line. Freshman Shayne Skov was huge early but when Cal figured out how to block him later, no one else could step up. The Bears just kept pounding it down the Cardinal's collective throat.



One of the keys to the game going into it for Cal was which Kevin Riley would play quarterback? The good one or the bad one? Regrettably, Stanford got the good one. Riley was 17-31, 235 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Had it not been for several dropped passes, his numbers would have been even better. This game was mostly about the run game. But when Cal would need a pass, Stanford could not stop Riley. He made several clutch third-down throws, especially in the third quarter. Richard Sherman had a great interception and a great pass defense in the end zone, but on shorter routes he gave too much room. Cal continually found holes in the zone defense by dragging a receiver from the backside over to the strong side on a Riley role out. Stanford could not adjust. The pass rush was mostly non-existent. Again Stanford waited until mid-way through the fourth quarter before they started to blitz. While the Cardinal offense struggled in the middle of the game, the defense could not make the few big plays required to get off the field.



Stanford blocked the punt. Again they won the field position battle on kickoffs. Owusu was a step away from a touchdown on more than one occasion. The only "not-so-great" knock on the special teams night was the missed field goal by Nate Whitaker. How big would those three points have been in the fourth quarter?



This seems to be where fan anger and frustration lies. The Stanford fan seems willing to forget the play of kids on the field, but there shall be no forgiveness for the coaching staff for not putting them in the best spots for success. The staff has been pulling solid grades all year, so this one was hopefully a fluke. The Cardinal game plan seemed "okay" out of the gate. "We are going to do what we do best and make them stop us." But the coaching staff seemed slow to make adjustments when Cal managed to slow the ground game. When it became clear that the inside run was being stuffed, it was not until near the end of the third quarter that they tried the outside run. As Vereen dominated on two simple inside plays (one a trap play, the other the wildcat) it took until the fourth quarter for the defense to adjust again.

Look, I actually support the decision to go for it on fourth down in Stanford's own territory. The Cardinal defense had not proven they could get off the field. If the play fails, the short field could help and a field goal still leaves Stanford a chance. In fact, that part did work out. Some of the fourth-quarter play-calling though was highly questionable. Midway through the fourth with an offense that is struggling there were two consecutive bombs thrown. Two incomplete passes leaving a third and ten. On the final drive, what was the upside to scoring right away? There was plenty of time for Cal to run down the field for a game-winning field goal. With Cal on its heels, at least one running play should have been called. Especially on second down after Luck almost threw the interception in the corner of the end zone.


OVERALL: F (We recognize this should be more like a "C" or "C+", but c'mon, this was the Big Game!)

It was a fun game at which to be present. It was exciting, it was exhilarating, but in the end it was a loss. It was a loss to a rival. It was a loss to Cal. No other grade could be appropriate other than an "F". When the season ends next week there will be plenty of time to look back and ask. How did we not take the Bears' generous offer to have Stanford play less than their best and still win it at the end?

Note: Fortunately, the resilient Cardinal still has an opportunity to ace 2009's final exam on Saturday and get a terrific grade for the fall quarter. We hope everyone is hitting the books and studying hard.

Dave Fowkes is a longtime Stanford Cardinal fan, who is finally seeing his loyalty pay some serious dividends. Born at Stanford hospital and raised on the Peninsula, he has been a football season ticket holder since 1981. In that span he has only missed three home games, but of course never a Big Game. Dave currently works in media both on the air and behind the scenes in advertising sales. He has covered sports on and off since 1992. Currently he works as a traffic, news and sports man on several Bay Area radio stations under a few different on-air aliases. Dave blends the passion of being a fan with the perspective of being a reporter in his stories. For more Stanford football coverage by Dave Fowkes, you can read the "Stanford Football Examiner" at www.stanfordfootballreport.com  

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